Five Thoughts on Cecil the Lion—Or: How the Internet Really Botched This One

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Five Thoughts on Cecil the Lion—Or: How the Internet Really Botched This One

by Okla Elliott

I had initially decided to ignore all of the Cecil the Lion outrage and counter-outrage, thinking it one more oddity of the internet, but as the debate continues on, I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts on the matter. Thoughts 1 & 2 below basically sum up what I see as the salient factors of the initial internet outrage over Cecil’s death and the internet backlash to that outrage. More importantly, to my mind anyway, are thoughts 3, 4, & 5, which I hope offer ways we might have a more productive conversation and move forward beyond reductive memes, Twitter quips, and zero-sum/binary thinking.

1) How often do humans have empathy for animals? Very rarely, so I suggest we applaud this instance of trans-species empathy. That being said, I often imagine a majority of the people expressing outrage over this one senseless act of killing which led to great suffering in an animal were eating a cheeseburger while posting their outrage. I am glad we are seeing empathy toward an animal, but now we have to train ourselves to feel that same empathy and outrage for the hundreds and hundreds of millions of animals we consume every year after offering them nothing but a torturous existence before their slaughter. And here I am optimistic, because a recent statistic shows Americans are slaughtering tens of millions fewer animals a year for their sustenance. May we continue this trend.

[Side note: I discuss part of why we feel more empathy toward Cecil the Lion than other animals in thought #3.]

2) I want to discuss the outright empirical inaccuracy of the claims going around the internet that people are showing outrage over Cecil the Lion’s unnecessary and excruciating death yet are ignoring other ethical issues. Take the popular meme suggesting that no one showed any concern for the Iraq War or the war on drugs. It would require about a minute of honest research to know this is just factually inaccurate. Tens of millions of 1cecilpeople protested the Iraq War, and many people have been criticizing the war on drugs for decades now, including but not limited to presidential candidates in both major political parties, thousands of lawyers, many celebrities, and millions of concerned citizens.

But the real issue here isn’t that all of the quips, memes, op-ed pieces, and meta-moral outrage are empirically inaccurate (though they are), but rather that ethics is not a zero-sum game. I bet you a hundred bucks that 90% or more of the people who have posted about the murder of this lion have, at some point, also posted about racism, sexism, wealth inequality, the environment, etc. – and I bet you another hundred bucks that they’ve posted more about these things throughout their time on social media they have about than the death of one lion.

It is entirely possible to have multiple political convictions and to be an activist for more than one issue. We have got to jettison this zero-sum thinking from our ethics and politics if we’re going to solve more than one problem at a time.

In short, the issues you think are important are still getting millions of posts and certainly have and will continue to receive more attention than one lion’s horrific death. In particular, some have suggested that people have cared more about this one lion’s death than the murder of black Americans at the hands of the police. Here a simple Google search will suffice. There have been literally over ten thousand times more posts about #BlackLivesMatter than #CeciltheLion. Of course, these posts have not solved the heinous problem of systemic racism in the United States any more than posts about Cecil the Lion have solved all animal rights issues, but if your metric for caring is online posts about a subject, it is clear that many more people care about the rampant racism in this country than Cecil the Lion—which is exactly as it should be, since it affects millions of sentient beings suffering unnecessarily, as opposed to just one lion.

[Side note: I want to be as emphatic as possible here when I say that all of these movements—#YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, and many others that don’t yet have hashtags but have many supporters—are absolutely important and even necessary if we are going to move our culture toward a more empathetic and therefore just society. I am merely criticizing the idea that posting about one might diminish someone’s support for another.]

3) There are of course entirely different angles of inquiry that are being flooded over by all this outrage and counter-outrage. One such angle is the way aesthetics shapes our ethics. Lions—especially healthy, robust ones—fit most people’s definitions of “beautiful” or “majestic,” whereas an emaciated, disease-ridden cow would not. We are therefore much more likely to show outrage over the murder of a healthy lion than a sickly cow, precisely because the former meets our aesthetic requirements for beauty. This is a question rarely discussed, but it is equally important when we discuss ethics and the law in the human realm.

What role does aesthetics play in our legal system when we see that a white woman (the standard of Western beauty) is the least likely of all demographics to be convicted of a crime, and when our culture views the violence (sexual or otherwise) toward a white woman a more heinous crime than the violence toward a woman of color or a male of any race? Practically no one discusses the connection between aesthetics and ethics/law, and the current quips on Twitter and the evidence- and logic-poor memes going around the internet are adding nothing to the conversation, simply going back and forth in a zero-sum ethical game that reinforces bad thinking about ethics.

I propose, therefore, a long discussion about how our aesthetics informs our ethics.

[Side note: There are of course other issues at play here. People will also often get more outraged when a member of an endangered species is killed than when another more abundant animal is killed, thus the disparity in public outrage between a rhino (not usually considered beautiful in the classical sense) being poached in Africa and a cute bunny rabbit being killed by a hunter in rural Pennsylvania. We also have to take into account the fact that Cecil had a name, which individualized him for many and thus increased the emotional connection. The aesthetics angle I propose here is by no means the only angle by which we could approach this subject to find a more fruitful conversation, but I think it is one of the most productive since aesthetics plays such a huge role in much of our ethical thought without us realizing it.]

4) Tolstoy once said that the best stories aren’t good versus evil, but rather good versus good, and this is certainly a story of good versus good. Everyone seems to be outraged about legitimate ethical wrongs and want to see these wrongs corrected. I simply argue that the best way to do this is to develop omni-directional empathy, allowing us to empathize with animals not of our species and with members of different demographics 2ceciland beliefs within our own species. It is not a binary or zero-sum game; every ethical impulse becomes a habit of mind that we must foster to the fullest, aiming toward feeling as much empathy for as many sentient beings as our finite minds can manage.

5) I am a great believer in the powers of the internet to raise awareness for issues and political candidates and literary endeavors, etc., but that is not to suggest that it is without its flaws. One of the biggest ones is that discussion on the internet is often reduced to memes and the sadly reductive space of a Twitter post. We must make use of social media to raise awareness of issues and to promote good ideas and good books and underrepresented thoughts. We must also, however, remain ever-vigilant against the possibility of shrinking the complexities in these arenas. I beg everyone to take a step, or a few steps, back and re-assess everything going on around these series of issues and make more complex analyses thereof. We should also endeavor to take greater action than merely posting online and criticizing the posts that we see online.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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